On the morning of January 14, a downtown courtroom packed with reporters awaited the verdict from U.S. District Court Judge Robert Gettleman on the release of the now-infamous Cedrick Chatman video, which the city of Chicago had kept under wraps since 2013. The video came up as potential evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Chatman’s family, and a probable release was thus imminent. Indeed, Judge Gettleman did lift the prohibitive order on the video after city lawyers decided to cease their opposition to releasing the video in the interest of transparency.
Judge Gettleman, who was supposed to decide the case before the city intervened, criticized the city’s decision.
“I went to a lot of trouble to decide this issue, and then I get this motion last night saying that this is the age of enlightenment with the city and we’re going to be transparent,” said Gettleman. “I think it’s irresponsible.”
The city’s about-face on the issue of the Chatman video seems to be part of a broader push to repair its tarnished image following months of fallout from the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting tape by giving in to public demands for reform.
“The city of Chicago is working to find the right balance between the public’s interest in disclosure and the importance of protecting the integrity of investigations and the judicial process,” Chicago Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton wrote in a statement. Patton also wrote that the decision to release the Chatman video came about largely as a result of recommendations from the police accountability task force that had been appointed by Rahm Emanuel on December 1. Along with the sudden change in policy on the Chatman video, the mayor appointed Sharon Fairley as the new head of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA). She has since been outspoken about her commitment to transparency and independence from City Hall. An expansion of body camera and Taser use was also announced late last year.
These policy changes could have some far-reaching consequences for what attorney Michael Oppenheimer called “a culture of covering up” in an interview with Newsweek. Oppenheimer is the lawyer for the family of Ronald Johnson, who was killed in a police shooting in October 2014. The video of his death was released on December 7, shortly after the McDonald video, after a year’s worth of city efforts to keep it shuttered. This was originally the approach taken by city officials with regard to the Chatman video as well. Chatman’s shooting was ruled unjustified by Lorenzo Davis, the supervising investigator in the case for IPRA, before Davis was fired and the ruling changed. IPRA accused Davis of being “the only supervisor at IPRA who resists making requested changes as directed by management in order to reflect the correct finding with respect to OIS [officer-involved-shootings].” According to WBEZ, since 2007, IPRA has investigated almost four hundred police shootings and found only one to be unjustified.
For this reason, the changes to IPRA’s focus under Sharon Fairley, if implemented, could be an important step in changing the culture of Chicago’s police. However, something like the Chatman video would probably never have been released had there not been external pressures forcing the city’s hand. In the wake of the Laquan McDonald video release, a slew of reform-minded bills, specifically aimed at addressing the CPD’s shortcomings, were introduced in the state’s General Assembly. This legislation may have motivated the city to tackle some of the proposed transparency-related changes internally. For instance, a bill introduced by Arthur Turner would require that law enforcement agencies wishing to deny Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for police shooting videos prove that the videos qualify for FOIA exemptions. Legislation on body cameras and Taser use has also been proposed by both the city of Chicago and state lawmakers. Another motivator for the release of the video may have been the December 7 announcement by US Attorney General Loretta Lynch that the Department of Justice would open an investigation into CPD’s actions.
However, Chicagoans had been on the streets well before any of these developments occurred since the release of the McDonald video in November. On November 27, Black Friday, Black Lives Matter protestors shut down Michigan Avenue on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, costing stores thousands of dollars in revenue. Just a few days later, on December 1st, Rahm Emanuel fired Superintendent Garry McCarthy. While activists in favor of police transparency, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union, have been clamoring for reform for years, the public McDonald video may have convinced the city to shift from business as usual on police accountability. Whether deeper changes will result from the turn towards transparency remains to be seen.